Pictou, Nova Scotia isn’t the first place one might consider as a hotbed of culture. For the next five days, however, the quiet north-shore community comes alive with art for the first annual W(here) Festival. Mary MacDonald is the festival’s founder and curator.

On the festival's origins and mandate

This year's W(here) Festival is the first of its kind for Pictou County. It is a collaboration between myself and the Pictou Renaissance Society as well as the many artists, residents and businesses in the local community. Together we hope that this festival or parts of it will be built upon and continued in the future. The W(here) Festival seeks to bring together local artists, diverse communities and visiting artists in a rich program for all ages. The festival's theme - an investigation of how place, art and community intertwine - was selected through discussions with the local community including studio visits with artists, meetings with community members and networking events for residents with an interest in culture. The artists, locations and modes of presentation were also selected from this research process. So! For example, the festival recognized that there was a real need for more opportunities for local artists to connect with one another and present their work and their ideas, so many of the festival events became discussion-based, interactive and collaborative. 

On this year’s event

As this is the first year for the W(here) Festival, it is truly a pilot project in many ways. We have purposely chosen many ways to present artwork/ideas from going on a field trip with a local artist and learning about their sense of place to evening discussions about art and culture in the area. In addition, for the social butterflies, there are events such as the festival launch "kitchen pARTy" featuring a series of fast-paced artist talks on a range of topics at Carvers Coffeehouse and Studio and for the history buffs, a launch of an online video documentary at the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Pictou that explores the community and culture of the Maritime Packers lobster cannery in Caribou NS. This project, called "Memory Factory", is by filmmakers Katherine Knight and  David Craig of Site Media Inc who are seasonal residents of the area. "Memory Factory" is also a good example of the collaborative nature of working in rural areas such as Pictou, as the Northumberland Fisheries Museum have been a strong supporter in the development of this work. And then to cap the week off, we have a concert with Mr. Al Tuck, PEI singer/songwriter. So there is truly something for everyone! 

On attendees

Our key audience will most likely be those interested in arts and culture in the community but as many of the projects also have a strong historical thematic, we are expecting a lot of folks to come out who are interested in learning about Pictou County. I think this question of  how we see ourselves and our place is such a fascinating topic for many living in rural areas. We are undergoing so much transition in recent years that we really need to stop and think about how we are changing. I see this as a great possibility for rural communities, as we are constantly re-inventing ourselves and this festival is just one more way we can consider where we are and where we are going. 

On what attendees can expect to experience

Local artists and residents will be in for some exciting new adventures! We have 4 field trips designed and led by local artists. Authors Linda Little and Sheree Fitch will take us to the old iron bridge in River John while yoga instructor and visual artist Raina McDonald will lead us in a performance in an old overgrown foundation in Brookland. In addition, historian and author Susan Sellers takes us to Pictou Island via fishing-boat ferry where we will learn about the life of Margaret MacDonald a famous nurse who lived on the island while visual artist Sharon Nowlan shows us how to make a drawing on the beach with stones at Waterside Beach. All of these field-trips are really quite interactive. I mentioned some of the other projects above, but on a more general note I think Pictou County will get to meet many of its artists and realize that we are such a diverse group of makers from film-makers to visual artists, textile artists to performers. 

On the importance of the event for the community

In doing research for this project, meeting with artists and talking with residents, it really became apparent that Pictou County has such a rich and diverse artist community. I was constantly amazed at the rich conversations I would have with artists and residents about some of these ideas. There are artists working at many levels as well from emerging to those who are recognized nationally and internationally. New studios and galleries are beginning to emerge, and there seems to be a real desire to bring the arts to the forefront in developing new economies and indeed bring new life to this community. So I think of the W(here) Festival as a test run of sorts, to bring different people with various interests in the county's development together, while at the same time offering a professional venue for contemporary artists to share and present their work. In a place that has few established art institutions, festivals can become important venues of developing artistic practices. It’s really all about finding ways to connect really. 

On the importance of the event for the Atlantic region

There seems to be a real love affair with artistic practices happening in outer lying regions of the country these days and I believe the East Coast is next on the map. Or perhaps more accurately it has really always been there, simmering just under the surface, and its coming to national attention again. For example, in the contemporary art world, I see a lot of focus on the North at the moment, and I would say that the East Coast fits into a similar intrigue and cultural draw. Its rich histories, landscapes and generous population are a powerful draw for artists from both here and away and I see a lot of people wanting to work in these areas (myself included!). The W(here) Festival also has a sort of hybrid working model as it looks at Pictou County almost like an art institution itself, where there are the business minded folk, the visionaries, the doers and so on that are brought together to make projects happen. This is a pretty exciting model because here, we are not bound by gallery walls or a mandate, but can work between disciplines and interests and for many small communities in Atlantic Canada this is the way that they work and get things done naturally! 

On the festival’s future

It has been a long process developing the W(here) Festival, beginning about a year ago, and indeed it really still is a process, as art and culture are always in the making. In the future, I could see the local community taking up various aspects of this festival, and adapting it to new projects. It may continue in its present form, or indeed totally morph into something new. But it is my hope that we continue to think about where we are and how this is reflected in our cultural practices. These are our stories... whether they are visual, musical or written, and so putting out as many viewpoints as we can seems like an excellent way to celebrate our place. 

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